Guest Post: Beyond the Ballot – Mongolia’s General Election Commission

By Jessica Keegan

Mongolia’s General Election Commission (GEC) has been in existence since 1992 and is responsible for administering free, fair and credible elections. As with any young democracy, the institution has at times struggled to keep up with Mongolia’s shifting electoral landscape. Although job approval ratings for Mongolia’s General Election Commission (GEC) have been paltry at best, the institution has done a decent job over the past several election cycles to administer credible elections.

Since 2016, opinion research conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) has tracked public perceptions of Mongolia’s electoral environment on indicators including trust, job performance and fairness of elections. The research indicates a growing confidence in the elections processes over the last two years and offers a positive snapshot as to the health of Mongolia’s young parliamentary democracy. Consider the following points:

1. Trust in the Biometric Voting System

In the lead up to last year’s parliamentary elections, increased public skepticism driven by political parties surrounding the adoption of the biometric voting system or “black boxes” only temporarily affected public confidence in the system. According to survey results from an August 2016 poll following the June parliamentary elections, trust in the electronic voting system increased   significantly after the elections. By international standards, the June parliamentary elections were well-administered with very few cases of real voter fraud which perhaps influenced public confidence in the electronic voting system. For instance, in March 2016, less than half of Mongolian citizens (38 percent) said they trusted the electronic voting system; just five months later, 70 percent of citizens reported that they trusted the system. Similarly, in March of 2016, when asked whether they believed that their vote would be confidential, 52 percent of Mongolian citizens agreed; that number increased by 15 points by in August 2016.

2. Fairness & Job Performance

Interestingly, between February and May of 2017, citizens’ perceptions of the fairness of the presidential elections fluctuated significantly and in a positive direction. When asked, “do you believe the presidential elections will be free and fair?” between February and May of 2017 there was a dramatic 18 percent decrease in the number of Mongolian citizens who  believed that the presidential elections would not be free and fair.  At the same time, we observed an incremental 10 percent increase in the number of citizens who held the belief that the presidential elections would be free and fair. What accounts for the shift in perception? In May 2017, there was a clear shift in the number of Mongolian citizens who believed that presidential elections would not be free and fair (18%) to those that said that they were not sure, did not know or refused to answer (9%). The 18 percent decrease in the number of Mongolian citizens who believed that the presidential elections would not be free and fair is nearly exactly proportional to the increase in those believed that the presidential elections would be fair (10%) or were not sure (9%). Meaning, we are observing better movement from holding the belief that elections are not free and fair to a new uncertainty about the fairness of elections—which is an improvement that’s been tracked over the past year.

When examining indicators of job performance, perhaps unsurprisingly, over half of the Mongolian population disapproves of the job performance of the GEC—and that has remained the same for the past two election cycles. Why do citizens rate their performance so poorly? It may stem from a number of factors—from an appointment process at the lower-level Precinct Election Commissions (PEC) that has proven susceptible to partisan influence, to the GEC rejecting the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) presidential candidate, to the lack of a proactive communications strategy.  In addition, negative public perceptions of the GEC over the issue of “grasshoppering”— the deliberate act of influencing elections by encouraging citizens to change their voting district—likely undermined approval ratings in the past. However, there are signs that negative perceptions of the GEC may have slightly subsided in the court of public opinion. Between March 2016 and April 2017, the GEC’s approval ratings increased by 10 percent up from just 26 percent in March to 38 percent in April. This could be due to the fact that election monitoring groups such as MIDAS (Mongolian Information Development Association) have recently issued positive reports that the GEC has been serious about incorporating past recommendations. Notably, the institution has also maintained continuity in staffing its public servants despite changes in government, which is a good sign for GEC’s institutional capacity in the long run.

3. Improved Voter Education Efforts

Prior to the presidential elections, the GEC trained elections officials throughout all 21 provinces and in all nine districts of Ulaanbaatar, while also working with a number of civil society organizations to mobilize potential trainers. The GEC fully supported outreach to the deaf community— working with groups such as the Deaf Children’s Parents Association (DCPA) to disseminate voter education videos with sign language insets and developing a special curriculum to train the trainers, released in advance of the presidential elections. While there are still numerous accessibility issues that the GEC and PECs need to address, GEC acknowledged the right of persons with disabilities to participate in the political process and are taking small steps to protect their right to universal franchise.

Despite these achievements, the GEC is still struggling with a few key deficiencies. For example, the precise number of disabled voters participating in Mongolia’s presidential elections are unknown and while the GEC may work hard to ensure procedurally sound elections, capacity and transparency gaps remain.

Particularly in the areas of data transparency and access to information, the GEC falls short of expectations. For example, voter data disaggregated by aimag (province) and soum (municipality)—which would be extremely beneficial for citizens and development experts to access—is not yet public. Aimag-level data—such as the number of female voters and age distribution—remains opaque and unavailable. This dearth in detailed data impedes targeting efforts by GEC, parties and citizens groups, and the GEC should strive to collaborate more with the state administrative authority in charge of state registration to improve citizen access to precinct-level information. Such transparent behaviour would augment confidence in the institution, and mitigate public concerns over perceived partisanship.

About Jessica Keegan

Jessica Keegan is the Mongolia-based Program Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, working to advance freedom and democracy worldwide. Ms. Keegan has overseen development programs in Cambodia and Egypt and has participated in several international election observation missions. Ms. Keegan holds a Master of Advanced Study (MAS) in International Affairs from the University of California, San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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